What I knew about farming when we arrived in West Windsor in 1957 was little more than what I learned by looking up the word in the dictionary. As a city boy, my only exposure to growing things larger than a morning glory was at my cousin’s vegetable garden where he lived in the country north of New York City. But here, in Grovers Mill, our house bordered on a 40-acre farm where we could observe the whole operation from early spring until after harvest. It went on like that for about the first decade we were here. We even got into the act ourselves with our 20 by 40-foot vegetable garden. A highlight of each winter was deciding what seeds to order for next spring from the Burpee catalog. For about 20 years, or until the trees we planted got large enough to block the sun needed to grow vegetables, we had our own little farm right in the backyard.
But observing the real farms in West Windsor was another matter, and their history is impressive. West Windsor has recently compiled a map that shows farms that once operated in the township. It covers the time up to the residential development era, which started about 60 years ago and is still going on. There were nearly 150 separate land parcels that were once classified as farms. That means that each one was used by its owner to grow crops. The farms ranged in size from less than an acre to several hundred. Over the years the main crops have included potatoes, wheat, barley, alfalfa, soy beans, and corn. A few farms even specialized in growing sod for the lawns for some of the new houses.
In 1957, the only major housing “subdivision” was Colonial Park, which was under construction on Penn Lyle Road. A smaller development, Glen Acres on Alexander Road, had just been built. Everywhere else there was farmland, and the tractors were busy. Sometimes the tractors and other farming equipment had to be moved from one field to another using the public roads. When you got behind a tractor towing some kind of cultivating rig that was as wide as both lanes of the road, there was no choice but to slow down and follow it until it reached its destination. Usually, that wasn’t very far.
Some farms were so large that the farmer and his family could not handle the operations all by themselves, and they had to rely on temporary migrant workers to help, especially at harvest time. Migrant workers moved from one farming area to another around the country as they were needed according to the season and the work to be done. Several West Windsor farmers had built special housing in their fields for the migrant workers where they stayed as long as they were needed. When their work was finished, they moved on and the house remained empty until the next season.
Crops that needed watering during dry spells were irrigated by pumping water from nearby streams. There were several available in the township, including Little Bear Brook, Big Bear Brook, Assunpink Creek, Bridegroom Run, Duck Pond Run, and the Millstone River. Irrigation was sometimes accomplished by pumping the water to a “wheel line,” a long elevated metal tube supported on large bicycle-like wheels, and that had spray nozzles at intervals along its length. The whole apparatus was made to move across the field by turning the wheels with a belt and a gasoline engine mounted at its center.
Insect pests were controlled by “crop dusting.” That is aerial spraying of insecticides in powder or liquid form. When airplanes were first developed to do this job, some West Windsor farmers bought a plane and learned to fly it themselves so they could do the dusting. Later some farmers went into the business of spraying other fields as well as their own. From our house in Grovers Mill we could see and hear the crop dusting plane working on a farm on Rabbit Hill Road about a mile away.
Eventually, the airplanes were phased out in favor of helicopters. One farmer on Southfield Road went into business with his helicopter and did most of the crop dusting for everyone else in the township who needed it. But as the residential development boom increased in the 1970s and ’80s, crop dusting, irrigation, and the broad fields of corn and other crops went away — to some, regrettably. Well, of course by then it was known that crop dusting was hazardous to your health. But a field of corn was still a pretty sight. Go to the corner of North Post Road and Village Road and you’ll see what I mean.